If you're planning a visit to an archive for genealogy research, you may be wondering what to bring along. It's important to come prepared with the right tools and mindset to get the most out of your visit.
In this article, I'll take a look at some essential items to bring with you when researching in an archive, as well as some tips for making the most of your time there. Whether you're a seasoned researcher or a first-timer, these tips will help you get the most out of your archive visit.
(If you can not make a trip in-person to an archive, check out my article on how to do genealogy research remotely Successful Genealogy Research Requests by Mail.)
Archives are not like your average library or bookstore.
Researching in an archive can be overwhelming. Not only are you in a new place with unfamiliar rules and procedures, but you are also handling original, historical documents created by your ancestors. It’s emotional!
Prepare yourself by organizing your research trip using a tool like my Notion Template for Genealogy Research Trips. For each genealogy research trip I do, I fill-in this Notion template so I have everything at my fingertips for the day.
If you have not planned a research trip, I outline the basics of how I create a research plan in Three Steps in Making a Genealogy Research Plan.
Researching the Archive's Website
Most archives have a website that provides information about their collections, hours of operation, and research policies. It's important to read through this information thoroughly to get a better understanding of what to expect during your visit.
When I do research trips, I use my Notion Genealogy Research Trip template, making a page for each archive I am visiting. I copy & paste, and link what is important for me to know for each repository.
Contacting the Archive in Advance
In addition to researching the archive's website, it's also a good idea to contact the archive in advance.
You want to confirm they are open on the day of your visit and the collections you want are available. This can be done via email or phone and can help you get a better understanding of the archive's collections and policies.
You may also be able to arrange for materials to be pulled in advance of your visit, which can save you time once you arrive.
Necessary Identification and Archive Rules
When visiting an archive, it's important to bring the necessary identification and documentation.
This may include a government-issued ID, such as a driver's license or passport. Most archives require you to fill out a registration form or sign a research agreement before accessing materials. Follow all rules of that archive for document handling, photographs, copies, copyright, etc. I make sure to write these on the archives page in my Notion database, because the rules vary from archive-to-archive.
Appropriate Clothing and Materials for Handling Delicate Documents
Archives can feel cold, with temperature and humidity controls designed to protect delicate materials. It's important to dress appropriately, because no archive will allow you to wear outerwear, scarves, or hats inside.
You do not need to wear cotton gloves while handling documents, but you may want to bring nitrile gloves (not latex) to keep your hands clean. Most historical documents have dirt and dust and you’ll find you are covered in it by end of day.
Tools for Note-taking and Recording Information
When researching in an archive, it's important to have the right tools for note-taking and recording information.
This may include items like a laptop or tablet for taking digital notes, a notepad and pencil for handwritten notes, and a camera or mobile phone for photographing materials.
Some repositories have ScanPro microfilm machines which allow you to save the microfilmed documents as PDF’s on a USB drive. Bring a new USB drive, also known as a thumb drive, so you do not bring a computer virus to the archive.
Check the policies on photography and note-taking before your visit to ensure that you're following their guidelines.
More Items You May Want to Bring to an Archive
Once you have covered the essentials of a genealogy research trip to an archive, you may want to consider bringing the following items:
- Extra Reading Glasses: Forgetting these would make the trip useless, so I keep a spare pair in my bag at all times.
- Face Mask: May be required to wear and best to have a fresh one ready to wear.
- Post-it Notes: These are handy to save a page in a book, take notes on a paper copy, and jot down ideas.
- Paper fasteners: At repositories which only allow paper copies of their materials, I like to organize those copies right away. I bring plastic paper clips for the job.
- Pencils: I bring 3 to 4 pencils pre-sharpened.
- Ear Plugs: In case the archive has lots of conversations going, I use earplugs.
- Tissues and Headache Medicine: The dust on archival materials makes my nose run, and I get a headaches often while researching.
- Chargers/cables for technology: Portable battery chargers for your technology and the cables are necessary. Most of the time you will not be able to plug anything in while doing research in an archives. (I’ll cover more in technology in another post.)
- Microfiber Cloth: Wipe off my glasses, and phone and tablet screens.
If you research in archives often, you may want to pack a genealogy research bag of all these items so you are always ready. I have all these items in a checklist in my Notion Template for Genealogy Research Trips so I do not forget anything.
Taking Breaks and Managing Your Time
Researching in an archive can be overwhelming.
It’s important to take breaks and manage your energy. Many archives have designated break areas where researchers can take step away from research, and grab a snack or drink. It's also important to set realistic goals for your research and to prioritize the materials that are most important to your research topic.
Final Tips for Successful Archival Research
Genealogy researching in an archive can be a rewarding experience if you come prepared with the right tools and mindset.
By researching the archive's website, contacting the archive in advance, and understanding the archive's policies and guidelines, you can make the most of your visit and uncover the original documents of your ancestors.
There is nothing like holding something of your ancestors' in your hands!
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